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DL man is all about fiber optic systems

Chuck Collins has worked with fiber optic cable for years, and started his own business, in 2008. Brian Basham/Tribune

Chuck Collins may be one of the few people in town who not only know what an optical time-domain reflectometer, is, but knows how to use one.

For Collins, a Detroit Lakes native who splices and tests fiber optic cable, the optical time-domain reflectometer, or OTDR for short, is a tool of the trade.

He uses it to check his finished work and ensure the quality of his splices.

Collins has owned and operated Collins Cable Construction since 2008. If you need fiber optic cable installed or repaired, he’s your man.

“This is my fifth year in business,” he said. “I started right in the gut of the recession.”

He does a lot of work for underground construction companies and cable companies like Arvig.

Crews will bury a spool of fiber optic cable, then move on to bury the next spool, and Collins will splice the ends together to create a smooth connection, then test it to make sure a minimal amount of is lost through the splices.

He is sole owner and employee of Collins Cable Connection, and he works across the region.

He just finished working on a new fiber optic cable system in a Madison, Wis., suburb, where each house was wired for fiber optics.

After working on the project there for months (he hadn’t had any length of time off since June), he took March off to retool his equipment and get a break, and on Monday he heads to Nebraska for a “hot cut,” which involves splicing some fibers off a main line and redirecting them to a new area.

He’s been in the business a long time. Collins graduated with a degree in telecommunications electronics from Wadena Technical College in 1989 and until he started his own business, he worked for construction contractors installing fiber optic lines.

“I kept telling myself, if I had my own business, I wouldn’t do it that way,” he said. He took some courses and worked closely with a business coach before deciding to take the leap into self-employment.

“The economy in 2008 (wasn’t good),” he said. “People weren’t starting businesses, they were getting laid off. But a couple of people talked me into it.”

His customer base is companies like Arvig Communications that need some extra help on big projects. He often works with company splicer crews when they have more to do than they can handle.

After the fiber optic cable is placed, “they’ll hire me to splice it and test it,” he said. That’s where the OTDR comes in — it uses a laser beam of light to test the fiber optic fiber, which is made of glass and is reflective.

As Collins explains it, an OTDR injects a series of optical pulses into the fiber under test and reads light that is reflected back from points along the fiber.

The strength of the return pulses is measured as a function of time, and is plotted as a function of fiber length.

An OTDR may be used for locating breaks and estimating overall attenuation, including splice losses.

The amount and type of data moved by fiber optic fibers still sort of amazes Collins.

“These (fiber optic) cables carry everything from cellphones to cable TV to Internet to bank data,” he said. The majority of cellphone towers are linked by fiber optic cable, which carries the phone conversations.

Wireless data may move a short distance without cable, but the bulk of the heavy lifting is then done by fiber optic fibers, he said.

“Fiber is in a league of its own when it comes to security, and the amount and speed of data — right now you could probably run the city of Minneapolis on two fibers,” he said.

His work has taken him to 36 states so far, but he would like to land more work closer to home.

Collins is available to work with local businesses that are considering switching over to a fiber optic system or that are having maintenance issues with existing fiber optic systems.

“I’d love to be more involved in the local networks,” he said. “I grew up in Detroit Lakes and lived here most of my life.”